Blessed with abundant wildlife and a temperate climate, South Africa has long been a leading safari destination. Its most famous and flagship national reserve – the Kruger National Park – is Africa’s oldest conservation area. Among South Africa’s reserves you’ll find Big 5 safaris in malaria-free areas and conservancies for rare and endangered animals, ranging from rhinos and cheetahs to aardvarks and mountain zebras. These attractions combined with a first world infrastructure make South Africa the perfect choice for a first-time safari goer.
For seasoned safari travellers, the question is: where can I go to get off the beaten track? South Africa’s roads less travelled lead to sumptuous lodges and exclusive-use villas hidden away in pristine private reserves. There’s certainly no sacrifice of comfort when you leave behind the tourist hubs – expect great guiding and world-class service in some of the country’s most spectacular wilderness areas.
‘Seven Worlds of Wonder’ – Phinda
Most game reserves are happy to contain two or three different ecosystems; this one has no fewer than seven. With a name that means ‘return to the wild’, Phinda offers the discerning safari traveller some of the most diverse wildlife viewing in South Africa. In environments ranging from palm savannah to sand forest, you’ll enjoy day and night game drives, guided walks and river safaris. The Big 5 are present, and it’s a great destination for cheetah and black rhino. Bird watchers better bring their life lists, because Phinda has recorded an astounding 415 bird species.
Just a 3-hour drive from King Shaka International Airport, Phinda sits at the heart of the KwaZulu-Natal safari experience. Several other off-radar reserves are nearby, and with the Indian Ocean coast so close, add whale watching and shark-cage diving to your itinerary. It’s a private reserve usually offering exclusive safaris, but you can drive yourself there in a hire car as part of a larger KZN itinerary.
Where to stay? Honeymooners and couples will love the intimate nature of Phinda Forest Lodge, Phinda Rock Lodge and Phinda Vlei Lodge whereas families should head for Phinda Mountain Lodge. For complete exclusivity, Phinda Homestead is a sole-use safari villa designed for families and groups of friends. Read more about our recommended private travel experiences.
A Kalahari Diamond – Tswalu
South Africa’s largest private game reserve owes its existence to the Oppenheimers, and this famous diamond-dealing family has created a glittering jewel in the most unlikely of places – the Kalahari.
Forget what you think you know about the Kalahari. A desert it is not. Covering much of northern South Africa, the Kalahari is a place of rolling acacia grasslands – green in summer, yellow in winter – and it supports a range of animals on a par with any other environment. Lion and cheetah thrive here, as do arid-area antelope and black rhino, and if you are after a ‘mega-tick’ or two, then Tswalu is arguably Africa’s best destination for its two most elusive animals – the long-snouted aardvark and Africa’s roll-up armadillo – the pangolin. Spot-lit night drives are famously productive here but visitors also enjoy all-day explorations, rhino tracking, stargazing and horseback safaris.
A highly recommended honeymoon destination, Tswalu’s malaria-free setting also makes it ideal for families. Regular scheduled flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg means it’s easy to get there and add on an Indian Ocean beach holiday to round things off in style.
Where to stay? Award-winning Motse Lodge offers a truly unique South African experience: superb guiding, lavish suites and plenty of pampering.
Big Sky Dreaming – the Karoo
Covering much of the Eastern Cape, South Africa’s Great Karoo once rang with the sound of mighty herds on the move. And after a hundred years of silence, the animals are back.
The Karoo is certainly finding its mark on South Africa’s safari map. Malaria-free and home to mountain scenery that will leave you awestruck at the dramatic views, this little known region is a leading the way in conservation-and-community-driven reserves. Buffalo, cheetah and white rhino find sanctuary here, as do rare mountain zebra and blue cranes. Game drives, animal tracking and guided walks bring it all together.
Conveniently located at the end of the popular Garden Route, the Karoo reserves make an unforgettable safari finale for families and self-drivers. Hire a car in Cape Town, cruise the coast at your own pace and soak up game viewing drama under the biggest sky you’ve ever seen.
Where to stay? If you’re looking for the ultimate in Karoo exclusivity, head for The Manor at Samara, a sole-use four-suite villa with its own private staff. We recommend you combine a few nights in the Karoo with a safari in one of the Eastern Cape’s other prolific reserves closer to the coast. Try Hillsnek Safari Lodge for an intimate, personalised experience (they only have three tented suites) or Gorah Elephant Camp which has colonial-style meru-tents and a resident elephant herd that is often present in camp.
The Cape’s Escape – Sanbona
The trouble with Cape Town is that it’s so far from South Africa’s classic big game reserves. Traditionally, getting to the Kruger or another Big 5 destination involves a domestic flight or two-day drive, but not anymore. Answering the need for a genuine safari destination close to the Mother City, the owners of Sanbona spent a decade reintroducing the Cape’s indigenous wildlife to the flower-decked hills and plains of their private reserve. The result is that lion, elephant, rhino and cheetah are back in the Little Karoo after an absence of nearly 300 years.
Under a three-hour drive from Cape Town, Sanbona offers visitors to Cape Town the luxury of a short-stay safari with the minimum of fuss. And the way there is an adventure all in itself: hire a car and take a meandering route through the Cape Winelands and the Overberg – time your visit with the spring months, and you’ll enjoy the burst of wild flowers and arrival of whales along the coast too.
Sanbona’s family-friendly Gondwana Lodge and secluded, romance-oriented Dwyka Tented Lodge are the reserve’s best accommodations – both are well placed for the reserve’s top wildlife trump card: free-roamingwhite lions …
East meets West – the Waterberg
Set in a highly productive transition zone between South Africa’s arid west and wetter east, it’s no wonder that the mountains of the Waterberg are listed as a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Its savannah grasslands support grazing antelope as well as elephant, giraffe and rhino. Predators include lion and leopard, and it’s thanks to these animals that the region is home to the largest colony of Cape vultures on earth – over 800 of them still patrol the sky in lazy loops.
It’s a four-hour drive to the Waterberg from Johannesburg’s OR Tambo Airport – easy enough to do with a rental car. The mountains are malaria-free which is great news for families and their off-radar location is ideal for discerning travellers seeking a crowd-free game viewing experience. Head for Marataba, a Relais and Chateau lodge set at the heart of the Waterberg in Marakele National Park. Its private concession setting means plenty of personal touches like table-for-two suppers away from camp.